The Amazons, Adrienne Mayor

Reviewer: Aäron Schelfhoutamazons

The Amazons: lives and legends of warrior women across the ancient World, Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2014
ISBN: 978 0 691 14720 8

519 pages
$29.95 / £19.95 / €29,99




The Amazons: the legendary warrior women of Greek mythology. They have fought the most famous heroes of ancient Greece, including Heracles, Theseus and Achilles, as well as historical figures like king Cyrus of Persia, Pompeius Magnus and Alexander the Great. In this book, Adrienne Mayor convincingly demonstrates that the stories about the Amazons are more than merely figments of the rich imagination of the Greeks, but that they find their origins in Greek contacts with real female warriors from the Scythian steppes (particularly those north of the Black Sea and in the Caucasus).

Strong evidence for this hypothesis is delivered very early in the book. To do so, Mayor employs linguistics, Greek literature and archaeology. For instance, she shows how one of the oldest Greek names for the Amazons, Amazones antianeirai, was probably derived from the name of a Scythian tribe, with an interesting adjective added to it. Its meaning would be something akin to ‘Amazons, the tribe where women are equals of men’ (Mayor 23-25). She also mentions several Greek historians, including Isocrates and Diodorus, who associated the Amazons with Scythian women.

The most interesting evidence however, comes in the form of the many archaeological discoveries made on the Eurasian steppe, which are colourfully described in this work. Adrienne Mayor explores finds of Scythian graves from Ukraine to Kazachstan, which clearly prove that some of the women of the ancient steppe nomads actively participated in activities usually associated with men, like hunting and warfare. Many of these women were buried with a large quantity of weapons, and these were not merely ceremonial. Injuries to the women’s skeletons clearly show signs of battle. A few of them even had arrowheads still stuck in the bones! Two of these battle hardened women have been found as far as England, where they served as officers in the Roman army (Mayor 81-82).

However, The Amazons is not without flaws. For starters, the book is far longer than it has to be, because there is a lot of repetition. This is a deliberate choice of the author, to make sure that readers who skip ahead to the parts that most match their own areas of interest, don’t miss anything important (Mayor 13). While somewhat understandable, this choice does make things a lot less exciting for readers who do read the entire book. Even the most fascinating Greek myths get boring eventually, if you read about them too often in a row.

It is also strange how Mayor contradicts herself on an important point, namely on how the Greek view on the Amazons developed over time. First she presents an image in which the Greeks heard about a society of nomadic barbarians, in which women held an extraordinarily strong position (especially in comparison to that of Greek women). Over time, this view would have developed into stories about a mythical culture of women who were hostile towards men (Mayor, 22-24, 37). But halfway through her book, Mayor comes up with an entirely different story, in which the Greeks started with myths, and would develop a much more realistic image of the Scythian women over time, as their knowledge of them grew (Mayor, 97, 200). These two different possibilities seem entirely incompatible, so it is strange that Mayor ignores this contradiction.

The most bothersome of her book’s weak points is that Mayor projects her own modern social ideals of gender equality on Scythian culture, even anachronistically so. That Scythian women held a much stronger social position than the Greek women of their time, is indisputable. However, that does not have to mean that Scythian women were the equals of men in all regards, as Mayor repeatedly claims. Only on the rarest of occasions does she add the word ‘relative’ when she speaks of nomadic gender equality (Mayor 194). Adding some nuance to her work would be appropriate, especially when considering that in the largest archaeological find that she mentions, less than 5% of the warrior graves belongs to women (Mayor 70, a total of 317 graves, 12 of which belong to women). She prefers to emphasize other digs, where 20% to 37% of the recovered skeletons are female (Mayor 63-64). But which exact excavation it is where a percentage of 37% of the graves are of warrior women, cannot be found in Mayor’s text, nor is it found in her footnotes. She also fails to mention the total amount of graves of this mysterious, unnamed excavation.

Mayor’s biased view of the female Scythian warriors is clearly illustrated in her analysis of four duels between Greeks and Amazons, depicted on two vases (figures 13.7 and 13.8). In figure 13.7 she analyses two fights, where two Amazons seem to be about to fall at the hands of two Greek warriors. But according to Mayor their roles are about to be reversed, which the keen observer should be able to deduct from their posture. She then proceeds to describe a series of acrobatic feats that Gerard Butler’s depiction of king Leonidas would be jealous of (300, 2006), by which these two Amazons could defeat their opponents. In figure 13.8 it is two Greek soldiers who appear to be about to lose to two Amazons. Their position doesn’t seem to be any better or worse than that of the aforementioned women of figure 13.7, yet according to Mayor these two gentlemen do not stand the slightest chance of making it out alive.

Moving back to The Amazons’ strong points, it is very entertaining to read the collection of Greek myths on the Amazons, especially because Adrienne Mayor has gathered as many different versions of each of these myths as possible. On Heracles’ mission to obtain the golden girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyte, for example. In the most well known version of the story she wanted to give it up willingly, but Hera threw a spanner in the works. She caused a fight in which Heracles killed Hippolyte (in some versions with a single blow, in others after an epic duel). But in a different telling of the story Hera played no part at all. Instead, Heracles and his men attacked the Amazons by surprise when they were unarmed, because they were too intimidated by them to engage in a fair fight. At least as fascinating as the Greek stories are the myths of various Asian peoples about their own warrior women, which are addressed in the final part of The Amazons.

Eventually the best parts of the book do not directly concern the Amazons themselves, but the life of the Scythian steppe nomads in general. The chapters on the types of horses that these people rode on, how they made use of dogs and eagles when hunting, what their tattoos looked like and what kind of weapons they had and how they were used are extremely interesting and very well written.

Mayor did not succeed in offering the quality that I had expected, which is mostly because her enthusiasm about and admiration for the Amazons, as well as her own modern ideals on gender equality, have clouded her objective judgement. For the reader with an interest in the subject however, her work still has enough to offer and the beautiful illustrations make up for many of the book’s flaws. Still, The Amazons could have been considerably better.


Aäron Schelfhout

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